In the history of anti-war novels Slaughterhouse Five seems to be the least offensive. I know that makes it seem as if I’m damning the book with faint praise, but that is far from the intention. Some novels take horror to new heights, while others take irony to new depths, but Slaughterhouse does neither, instead laying out war and death as an inevitability none of us can escape.

It’s that idea I found most compelling while reading this all-to-brief account. Vonnegut was apparently captured during the Second World War and taken to the city of Dresden to act as forced labour. Not long after his arrival the city was fire-bombed by the Allies in one of the most controversial massacres in a Twentieth Century characterised by brutal, mechanised killings.

What’s fascinating about Slaughterhouse Five is the manner in which Vonnegut casts his novel so as to almost, but not quite, trivialise the horrors his proxy character, Billy Pilgrim, is experiencing. The entire novel has a bizarre whimsy that is at once both delightful (it’s not often you get to giggle every few pages of a book describing the murder of tens of thousands of civilians), and horrible.

Vonnegut writes in a pulp-paperback style (the book even includes a character who appears to be a nod to the doyen of pulp, Philip K. Dick), but this style serves to reinforce the distance that Pilgrim finds himself from the events unfolding around him. This, combined with the premise that Pilgrim is travelling backwards and forwards in time as the novel unfolds, serve to undermine the distance of the reader from Dresden. Dresden is not an event that happened in the Spring of 1945, it is an event that occurs now, even as you read this post, and it is an event that will always be happening.

It’s that conflation of linear time into a “constant presence” that acts to both trivialise and sharpen the narrative. Dresden is something that happened 60 years ago, but is also something that could and does happen every day here in the C21st. And perhaps that’s where Vonnegut is trying to find the horror in his story. Brutal deaths from warfare are as much an everyday occurrence today as they were in 1945, and as much as the Vietnam era in which Vonnegut was publishing. Dresden serves as a constant reminder of what we are capable of, and still do, and which we will always be compelled to do.

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